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Chamber
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Recital
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Symphony
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Choral and Vocal
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Symphony
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Chamber
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Chamber
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Recital
ALLURING GLASS WORKS IN WEILL RECITAL
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SYMPHONY REVIEW

Brigitte Armenier Receiving Applause May 6 (Andreas Knuttel photo)

SONIC SPLENDOR IN FINAL APSC CONCERT AT WELLS

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, May 6, 2012

May 6 marked the American Philharmonic Sonoma County's final concert in the Wells Fargo Center, and with the Santa Rosa Symphony leaving Wells after mid-May, orchestra events may soon be a dim memory in the venerable hall.

An audience of 950 sat through the usual bevy of announcements and raffle prizes, along with candidate conductor Norman Gamboa's slightly inane descriptions of what the concert's two compositions meant to him. But it was that kind of event, and the crowd was heavily sprinkled with young people, much to the delight of APSC's board.

But what of the music? Saint SaŽns' monumental "Organ" Symphony occupied the second half of the program, with James Warren playing the minimal organ part. The opening Adagio began with a whisper, the string sections matching perfectly with richly hued solos from clarinetist Jeff Chan and flutist Emily eynolds. Though Mr. Gamboa gave little subtlety to the long Saint SaŽns phrases, he sculpted the sensuous arching theme in the second movement deftly. And what a theme it is, reminiscent of the closing first movement melody in the same composer's C Minor Piano Concerto. The slow tempos favored by the conductor throughout the afternoon were here delicately precise.

The Allen organ, a massive electric instrument driving a line of speakers behind the brass section, sounded made for the hall, but its sparing use made one want to hear it more often. Mr. Warren, who apparently supplied the instrument, was a capable performer, but he sat by for long stretches without much to do.

The Allegro Moderato third movement was played with bounce but lacked clarity. Perhaps playing Presto sections without overlapping balances and phrase cutoffs is beyond the Philharmonic. In any event, the effect was scrappy. In the finale, the energy of the music carried the day, beginning with a wonderfully loud 32-foot organ stop and generating the requisite menace as the movement grew. There was outstanding playing by oboist Chris Krive and clarinetist Chan, both leading to an abbreviated fugue that began in the strings.

Mr. Gamboa was clearly in his element towards the end the symphony. The APSC created a tsunami of sound that drew the audience to its feet after the last chord. The conductor then recognized individual sections and players while enjoying the ovation.

Beethoven's E Flat Concerto, Op. 73, opened the program, with local pianist Brigitte Armenier playing the demanding solo part. Here again the conductor chose spacious tempos, which seemed to suit the pianist. Ms. Armenier lacks a big technique and a heroic approach to this most heroic of pieces; but what she brought to the work was a compelling intensity without extraneous details. She is an artist focused on the job at hand without sartorial puffery or platform theatrics. Her scale playing was lucid, and she offered brilliant right-hand trills.

The opening Allegro went smoothly with just a hint of problems to come in connecting the piano part with the orchestra. Several of the ascending runs began with the tuttis still ringing in the hall. Perhaps this was Ms. Armenier's choice, as she didnít begin the runs with dampers raised to mimic the ambient sound, a method used in long-past "Emperor" performances.

The following B Major middle movement was gorgeous, with Nick Xenelis providing beguiling clarinet solos and Ms. Armenier's tone the most lustrous of the day, even in the top register. The effect was captivating. Moving directly into the Rondo finale, Mr. Gamboa had difficulty keeping the APSC in sync with the pianist, the latter gamely jumping ahead when possible. Technically Ms. Armenier was in good form, her right-hand skips on target. In a surprising deviation from contemporary practice, she doubled the left-hand B Flats at bars 229 and 237 to resounding effect.

To have a local and largely unsung pianist play this masterwork on an auspicious occasion with Mr. Gamboa's committed if wayward direction was a fitting end for the Wells Fargo chapter of APSC's 13 years of unconventional music making.

Next season the APSC will revisit the format of two-set programs, four in all, at the refurbished 900-seat Santa Rosa High School Auditorium. This hall was once the home of the Santa Rosa Symphony under Corrick Brown. What remains to be seen is if the APSC can transfer the palpable glamor of the "people's orchestra" into the small space on Mendocino Avenue.